The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

Conference bittersweet with passing of historian, treasure at 104


Courtesy Pat Williams

Pat Williams spends time with her compansion Jobah at her daughter's home in Anchorage.

Just 18 days before the Alaska Historical Society and Alaska Museums annual conference is set to begin, Seward's oldest resident and beloved historian passed away in her sleep at her daughter's home in Anchorage.

Pat Williams, at the age of 104, was considered a city and state treasure. Her long awaited memoir, "There's a Freedom Here, My 100 years in Alaska," is set for release and debut at the conference.

Williams' legacy is solid, say her friends and family. She didn't just live Seward's history, she shared it.

"Pat Williams was a friend and mentor," said Doug Capra, Seward historian. "I met her when I first came to Seward in 1972. When she learned of my interest in Alaska history she pointed me toward sources and introduced me to her mother, and other members of the last remaining generation of pioneers."

Capra said Pat encouraged him to call her with questions as he worked on his research, and she would call him after reading some of his writing. Last summer, while he was Ketchikan, she called to tell him she had been reading his story about Seward's first public health nurse, Stella Fuller.

Lately, with politics in the air, there's been much talk about who is an Alaskan and who isn't, said Capra.

"If there is a definition, it would contain the name Pat Williams, said Capra. With Pat's passing, we've lost perhaps the last living connection with our distant territorial history. She was, as far as I can determine, the last living Alaskan who actually met and shook hands with President and Mrs. Harding when they came to Alaska in 1923. But she was more than her connection to our history. She was a kind, generous and inspirational woman who will be dearly missed."

As the conference drew closer, organizer Colleen Kelly was looking forward to the debut of Williams' book because it would shine a light on Seward's history to an audience that has a deep appreciation for our past.

"Pat had a fierce loyalty when it came to Seward," said Kelly. "Even when she moved to Anchorage in 2005, she kept that connection going. For many of her friends, a trip to Anchorage came to include a stop at Pat's apartment before heading south on the Seward Highway."

Kelly said Williams kept abreadst of local politics by voraciously reading Seward City Council packets. She watched videotapes of City Council meetings that Kelly mailed to her.

"Without fail, a phone call to Pat would start with her asking for the latest town news. More often than not, she was the one with the big scoop," remembers Kelly.

"Her love of Seward led her to become a charter member of the Resurrection Bay Historical Society, which began in 1962 with a group of like-minded people hoping to preserve area history," said Kelly. "Pat knew Seward inside and out. The town was founded a mere seven years before she moved from Valdez as a one-year-old. When Seward celebrated its centennial in 2003, Pat wrote a column for the Seward Phoenix LOG because she wanted people to know what it was like to live here. "

Kelly said Williams' book is a story "rich with detail of day-to-day life.

"No matter where I walk in town, I have a sense of Pat being at my side – giving me insight that helps me value this special place," said Kelly. "Although I know she's gone, Pat's stories will keep her alive."

The publisher of Williams' book, Jackie Pels with Hardscratch Press, is feeling the loss of Williams as she worked closely with her to document important historical events.

"My acquaintance with Patricia Ray Williams began when she wrote to me in about 1992 to say that she'd read and enjoyed my stepfather's Alaska books, the first books I'd published," said Pels. "She also reminisced at some length about knowing my mother and father as 'that handsome young couple around town,' before I was born. Of course I wrote back, greatly touched by such a thoughtful letter. She responded to mine with a note that ended, 'Now, don't answer this. You have work to do.' I've always loved that. Quintessential Pat."

In her book, Pels said, Williams tells about John, a man from Greece who with a friend, a fellow retired longshoreman, rented one of the apartments in the Ray Building.

"When the friend died she went downstairs to commiserate with John. 'Oh, hell,' he said. 'I've got lots of friends.,' said Pels. "Pat finishes the story by saying: 'Now it's something I think of when a friend dies: Oh, hell, I've got lots of friends.' She does have, and I'm so grateful to be one of them."

Pat's daughter, Pat Erickson, said she knows the focus will be on her mother for a time, but her mother wanted the focus to be on Seward. It was her mother's intention with her book, said Erickson, to share a multigenerational perspective that included her grandparents.

"She wanted to share the ways things were," said Erickson. "The way they changed over time from her perspective."

Pat wasn't just a beloved resident and historian. She was a working mother who made a special effort to find ways of spending time with her daughter.

"One morning when she got home from the night shift on the dock, she woke me early and took me to the head of the bay where there was an unusual "stuck" of jellyfish," remembers Erickson. "The head of the bay was quite different pre-quake. It was a gorgeous morning, all those jellyfish, the water, the mountains. It was Alaska, it was Seward, we knew where we were."

Erickson also remembers another day when her mother woke her early and the two went to Second Lake to ice skate before school. They had the lake to themselves.

Pat's daughter likes to talk about her mother in the context of relationships, not just her relationship with her mother but her mother's relationship with Seward.

"My mother had a relationship with Seward," said Erickson. "She knew Seward her entire life. Her relationship with Seward only deepened over the years.. She and the city grew up and matured together. It was a lifelong friendship."

Erickson said in the past few years, when her mother wasn't able to get around as easily, a major focus of every day was keeping up with Seward news.

People are so mobile now that it isn't often you find someone who stayed in the same place as long as her mother, said Erickson. "I graduated from Seward and few of us stayed in Alaska."

Because her mother remained, and Seward changed, her story became important to a lot of people who want to understand the way things were. Although she did not live to see the release of her book, her desire to share stories about the way things were will be a reality.

Erickson said her mother did not want flowers. She preferred, if people were so inclined, donations to the Alice Pickett Memorial Animal Shelter or to SOS Pets, for the benefit of cats especially. Last year in Anchorage, Pat had the pleasure of the part-time company of a cat named Jobah, said Erickson. Pat and Jobah understood each other.

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